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Showing posts from November, 2008

Taxicab Confessions Part 3

For those of us who have not seen Parts 1 and 2 of HBO's Taxicab Confessions, Part 3 will make them want to check out what they have missed. Part 3 introduces us to a cast of characters who have fascinating stories to tell - a lot of them requiring the suspension of disbelief. The man with a bipolar girlfriend, a prostitute at peace with her profession and her connection with God, a cop whose never ending nightmares don't allow him to sleep or find love. Every rider has a story with the hint of an epic if explored deeper - a potential novel and or a film. Inside the NYC cab is the a microcosm of the entire world.

From the streets and sidewalks of the melting pot that the city is, people from all walks of life in their exuberant diversity enter the cocoon of a taxicab. Sometimes, they have things on their mind that they want to tell a perfect stranger like the cab-driver. Things that they may have held back in other circumstances in the company of friends and acquaintances.

Insi…

Silence

Love the idea of preserving one square inch of silence. The article describes the somewhat unique quest of Gordon Hempton :

He calls his project “One Square Inch of Silence.” Following leads, crisscrossing the country, he searched for one square inch where he could listen for fifteen minutes and not hear a human sound but the whisper of his pencil on wet paper.

Further on, the author says :

If he can protect the silence of even an inch, he calculates that, in effect, he will be protecting the natural soundscape of approximately one thousand square miles of surrounding land. It’s a first step toward his goal of preventing the extinction of silence.

Thanks for this beautiful essay, I know it is possible to listen to a river like it were a musical instrument, know that someone is working to preserve silence in nature.

Resilience and Resignation

J has no concept of distance yet and it is just as well. When she first saw news of the blasts in Mumbai she grew frantic to talk to her grandparents. We did what she wanted and explained how far Kolkata is from Mumbai. She kept insisting "I know its not the same place. It does not matter. It is still in India". Those were sobering thoughts coming from a seven year old who has close to no recollection of India. Indeed, distance from tragedy does not matter and that is worth remembering at times like this.

My city, my home and my people were spared this time but there are absolutely no guarantees about the next time and the next. It is like sitting atop of a rumbling volcano and counting oneself safe because it has not erupted quite yet. We are all biding our time in what appears complete helplessness. There will be regret and outrage expressed, the strength and courage of the people of Mumbai commended, strong statements of condemnation made, in a few days the story diminish…

The Cleft

Every one and their grand uncle has a theory on relationships and how men and women can be at cross purposes while trying to be together. The marketplace is pullulating with the Women from Venus, Men from Mars genre books. But when Doris Lessing takes on this most weary chestnut of themes, she turns it on its head in her characteristically beguiling way. In The Cleft, she muses the eternal question about how men and women came to that fork on the road that took each to a different, quite unrelated place in the end. It is a novel. She refers to the male of the human species as:

'a younger type, a junior variation. They seem to lack the solidity of women, who seem to be endowed with a natural harmony with the ways of the world ... men in comparison are unstable, erratic. Is Nature trying something out?'

The book has not received the best reviews and the complaints are numerous - the plot is half-baked, the characters are overly simplistic among other things. The Washington Post s…

Hardening

After spending close to six months with us, my mother returned home to India a couple of days ago. J burst into tears watching her disappear into security check-in. Until the last minute she had been denial of a separation we had been preparing her for months. Then grandma just vanished from sight and it was time for us to drive back to our home - the apartment that has played the role of "home" for a few years now but never quite become one.

It is not the little cottage J dreams about with a front porch and a swing in the yard. That dream I have told her will come true soon but never said when. Children don't deal well with inexactitude. Grandma was able to make the place so close to home, that J was glad to return it each day.

So she cried in fits and bursts on our way home. I tried to cheer her up the best I could. It was a few hours of driving, in horrible traffic with pouring rain and darkness for company along with a melancholy child in the back seat. She asked me &q…

Images of Home

There is an amazing amount of talent on Flickr but this India themed photo-stream caught my eye. Some of the images are familiar from my own Indian experience, others not as much but there is a certain warmth and strength of character about the pictures that are distinctly India. While at Flickr, I wandered across the many places I have either lived or visited in all across India - seeing what strangers had seen of these places, guided by tags they had left behind like so many breadcrumbs for me to find my way around.

The towns photographed in 2007-2008 look nothing like they did twenty or more years ago. The roads and intersections are familiar by name but have been completely redefined by the newer landmarks that now define them. It took me no more than an hour to traverse the course of a couple of decades. I realized that I would be a complete stranger at any place in India that I have not visited within the last five years or more. It is as if the life that I have lived so far, the…

Losing Freedom

Reading this rather alarmist article by Naomi Wolfe reminds me of something my friend M said a while ago. She believes that there a reason why Americans have been given access to cheap high-calorie junk food, made addicted to cheap gas (until recently at least) , turned dependent on far too many prescription medicines and told to be very afraid of the bad guys out there who would love nothing more than to destroy their way of life.
She believes it is all part of a plot to keep the little people in line because they are easier to control and manipulate when they are are badly frightened and will reflexively seek comfort in junk food. M is one of the several older Americans I know who are deeply concerned about what the future holds for them and would be in complete agreement with Wolfe :
As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us u…

Feminized Males

Found this documentary The Disappearing Male via Mefi which is about one of the most important, and least publicized, issues facing the human species: the toxic threat to the male reproductive system.

The study focuses on the physical damage being done to unborn, young and adolescent males. There are several alarming statistics on male reproductive system abnormalities, lowering standards for male fertility -somewhat akin to lowering the poverty line so more people can remain above it. The documentary makes a compelling case for how the survival of the species could be at stake if the male's ability to reproduce kept plummeting at the going rate.

While all of that is definitely concerning, it would be worth understanding the impact to the emotional well-being of males who are less "male" than their fathers and grandfathers. There has to be a huge impact to social structures, families and relationships due to this seemingly out of control feminization of males.

Equal Distance

I first read the Love Sonnets of Pablo Neruda as a teenager tentatively in love not sure how to articulate how I felt. It was a powerful and transforming force taking over my life as I as had known it till then, leaving me hopelessly unsure of myself around the object of my affections. Neruda's poetry was my favorite escape at the time - his words gave love depth and verve that went far beyond the merely powerful :

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

When it came time for loss, I turned to Neruda's poetry for comfort - to his incomparable way of elevating pain to a thing of beauty:
The same night whitening the same the same trees.
We, we who were, are the no longer the same.

Reading these poems after years today, both the emotions love and loss appear equally distant - I have been single a while.

Name Generator

Found this fun blog post that generates your name as it might have been if your mom was Sarah Palin - its hard to forget her in my neck of the woods with the yards signs and bumper stickers yet to be put away. Mine turned out to be Knife Pile (ouch !) and J's was the slightly more nuanced Stick Freedom.

There are plenty of name generators out there - the other one I tried gave me my pirate name which is Captain Grace Cash. While the Palin name generator does not explain why I might be Knife Pile, here is what the pirate namer had to say per my responses to the questions leading up to the name :

Even though there's no legal rank on a pirate ship, everyone recognizes you're the one in charge. You're musical, and you've got a certain style if not flair. You'll do just fine. Arr!

If you are stumped with trying to come up with a pet name for your significant other with a little moxie help is at hand.

Rice Farming and Math

I can't wait to read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers even though I was underwhelmed by The Tipping Point. Despite all the hype around it, I was not convinced enough by his line of reasoning to be "tipped over". I am particularly intrigued by his explanation of why Asian kids are usually better at math than American ones :

"Rice farming lays out a cultural pattern that works beautifully when it comes to math," Gladwell hypothesizes. "Rice farming is the most labor-intensive form of agriculture known to man. It is also the most cognitively demanding form of agriculture … There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get exactly out of your rice paddy what you put into it."

I find this very presumptuous to say the least. Gladwell has made a broad brush (and mostly incorrect if I may add) assumption about Asians who have historically been a very class and caste conscious people. To posit that the rice-farming gene (or tradition) gives Asian k…

Love 2.0

Reading this article in which experts hold forth on online dating reminded me of something a friend had said a while ago - that I should write a post on how to spot a fake in thirty minutes or less. It is commonly known that on the Internet no one needs to know you are a dog. With apologies to the canine species who are by far superior on all counts compared with the scumbags you run into online, it is important to be able to recognize the many "dogs" of the online dating world. Here is a small sampling of things to beware of :

1. Email Address : Would not use a real first and last name, the handle itself would be vague and not have any real life associations that you can trace back to. Often the address is fairly new - its hard to find a fake using an email address he has had since the 90s.

2. Voice Mail Greeting : Regular people often announce their name in the own voice (at least) and will also have a greeting recorded. A fake will use a cell-phone and/or a VoIP phone as t…

Cooking For Soul

If there was a World's Slowest Eater contest, J would just not have any credible competition. Yet, she is very interested in the art and craft of cooking. Her miniature appetite notwithstanding, she appreciates well-prepared food and can tell it apart from a slipshod effort - a meal put together in a rush. In general, anything cooked a la Grandma is great - the more faithful the reproduction the better. 
Outside of that, she will occasionally love something we eat out but bringing home the leftovers (which is the majority of J's serving) for the next meal is usually not a good idea. J will have lost interest in it by then and will ask for a "regular" home cooked meal.  Recently, she helped me discover Show Me The Curry - one among many Indian food websites and blogs. It is an over-crowded space with lot of talented people jostling for room and airtime in it. 
Thanks to J's fascination with food, I've spend time looking around these web-sites marveling at the pa…

Hyperlinking

While reading random chapters from The Hyperlinked Society (via digital culture books) that talk about the nature and purpose of a hyperlink, I decided to try something I used to do a lot of when the Internet was utterly new to me. I would start at some random place like a news article and follow a hyperlink trail to wherever it took me. It was fascinating how quickly I would be completely de-linked from my source and have no way to trace my steps back - this was the web equivalent of being lost in the woods and it was always a surprising and most often gratifying journey. I loved how I would never quite know where hyperlinking would lead me or what I would learn along the way.

I tried this again today, starting with a story on Yahoo about the world's oldest temple which took me directly to Smithsonian's site. I realized that the web is organized so different today than it was ten years ago. For instance, there is no way for me to click my way out of this website - I can read s…

Crowdsourcing And Schools

Reading Jeff Howe's book Crowdsourcing recently prompted me to find out how this could be used in the field of education. My friend P, is a stay at home PTA mom and often talks about the long hours the more serious and committed PTA parents have to spend at school and how the public school system is able to do what it can for the children in the community only because of the huge volunteer involvement. In other words, it always takes a village to raise a child. As a full time at work mom, I deeply appreciate what folks like P do for J and me.

Clearly, using the web as a medium for communicating and conferencing has not become popular with the school system in my town. Coincidentally, I also happen to know the woman (K) who's company is one of the contractors the the school system has appointed to fix their technology infrastructure. I met K while looking for work a couple of years ago and we have become friends since. The book, a recent meeting with P and a voice mail message f…

Books, Desis and Dating

Though I am ashamed to admit it now, I did read Ayn Rand, Richard Bach and Robert Pirsig in my teens and was quite a bit of a fan as well. This is one of those teenage afflictions that many of us have suffered and with any luck recovered by the time we became adults. 
Was reading this fun discussion on personal ad red flags and could not help chuckling at Ayn Rand devotion being among them because I do feel highly repelled by adults who say that they are. Likewise a grown man who writes in his personal ad, that he is a P.G Wodehouse fanatic and reads Calvin and Hobbes for wisdom and inspiration has always proved to be really bad news in my experience.

I enjoy reading Wodehouse as much as the next person but would never feel compelled to include this fact in my bio. The desi male who calls out his devotion to Calvin and Hobbes has told you a whole lot about himself and as a woman, you would be well advised to heed this message. He is telling you that he is highly intelligent, given to p…

Trophies

Funny story about the rise and fall of a trophy wife. The "new" trophy wife is apparently one who is high-powered and high-income like her husband - it is the harsh economic real ties of the day that make it so. One political commentator calls a former presidential candidate a trophy wife and quotes another who compares him a Rorschach test. 
Steven Levitt has written about the economics of gold-digging (as it is probably practised by the wannabe standard-issue trophy wife) and it makes for very interesting reading. For anyone who cares about etymology - NYT has an article on the origins of the phrase trophy wife. Not surprisingly, the phrase trophy husband has an entirely positive connotation :
Fortune reported that more than one-third of the magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” in 2002 had stay-at-home spouses. The magazine called them “trophy husbands,” not for their looks or charm but because they deserve trophies for trading roles to help their wives’ careers f…

The Desi Social

Having a few ABCDs in my family and close friend circle, I try to stay away from the all-desi social scene in the US , the ecosystem that helps perpetrate the dread bane of ABCDness in the first place. I am committed to doing what little I can to allow J a chance to learn and care about India without feeling the need to give up whatever it means to be born and raised in the West. Reading this article on what goes on at the average desi party, was quite an eye-opener.

Several desi parents I know in America, have raised their kids in a recreated world that replicates their Indian experience from the time they last lived there - doing much disservice to the children in the process. By providing the kids an artificial comfort zone created by several other families just like theirs in a foreign culture and country, they make it extremely difficult for them assimilate with the mainstream - to a large extent they don't even find this necessary to do.

Between their trips to the temple, lang…

Trading Waste

It's hard not to read an article titled so suggestively - Crap and Trade. The author is inspired by the Indian experiment to provide monetary incentive to encourage the use of public toilets by paying the poor instead of relieving themselves in public. He argues for Americans to be likewise paid for using public toilets even if not for the same reasons as the Indians are being paid. He says :

I bet somebody will figure out pretty soon how to monetize toilet waste. And it won't be the government; it'll be the private sector.

Obscure Reads

I approach reading as someone with a small budget and a huge appetite might approach their options while picking a place to go to lunch. They would be most likely to select an all you can eat buffet hoping to stuff themselves to the gills before they head out of the establishment. Yet more often than not, a lot of the food they plan on eating remains untasted - there is only so much even the hungriest person can eat even after allowing for a huge appetite. 
Similarly, I go on a binge when borrowing books from a library - everything that is of interest comes home with me. I start reading all the books in parallel, leave most of them midway because I am too full from reading in the short amount of time I have available. It's not any different in a bookstore - I will try to go through as many as possible in the time that I am there. I always want to consume more than I have capacity for.
With that reading lists are very important to me - I used to make my own before the Internet days. …

Net Geners

I don't run into a lot of fresh out of college kids in my line of work, less computer science majors from reputed universities. Mediocrity is all around me as are mid career people from diverse educational backgrounds that hopped on the IT bandwagon in the 90s. They've stuck around, figured out their jobs well enough to remain afloat after many layoffs and re-organizations. Very few of them have any radically new or different ideas to bring to the table - rarely if ever do they question the merits of decisions that they are handed down to work with; often against impossible to beat odds.

Recently, that has changed. I am working with three kids with a total of ten years of work experience between them. However, that does not bother or hinder them in the least. What they lack in experience or raw talent they more than make up with their attitude. This article by Dan Topscott in the Guardian is a great summary of the traits these young people display but tends to be a little too …

Dawn And Opportunity

I love reading the work of young authors in Stone Soup. There is a certain freshness and clarity in the thought that does not last past childhood which makes the writing in this magazine such an unique pleasure. When I read this line by 13 year old Bonnie Leigh Cruser I had to wonder if that was not one of the best explanations I have come across of why dawn fills the heart with energy and gladness :

My timing is perfect—the sun is just tipping the horizon, lighting up the whole silent sky with amber sparks. My favorite time of day. New, and clean, and cool, and quiet. Evening is clean and cool, too, but opportunity is lacking. Everything is set in stone. But in the morning, everything is pliable and optimistic. Anything can happen.

In twenty years or more, someone with talent like Bonnie's might write just as beautifully of the unyielding romanticism and optimism of youth being like dawn where everything is pliable and optimistic. Anything can happen. Once youth is past and the &q…

Candy Tree

Until reading this fun article on candy classification I thought it was only one of two things - candy you liked and candy you hated. I find myself disagreeing with the classification almost entirely because of how Tootsie Rolls have been placed - below the lowest most level would be more appropriate as far as I am concerned. Then again, I don't care for anything listed in the top tiers either - except maybe for M&Ms. It would be interesting to rate and rank candy by popular vote. One blogger has come up with a nice rating system.

If you don't care for generic candy and stick to chocolate bars alone this long and exhaustive rating chart might be instructive. Candy must be good for stress relief how else can one explain the disappearance of left-over Halloween stuff people bring to work within an hour of their being laid out in the community bowl. On a bad day, even the worst candy-snobs will settle for offerings from the lowest branches of the "tree".

Along with c…

Small Town

I've tried living in big cities both in India and America but have to admit despite all protestations to the contrary, I am at heart a small town person. As much as I crave for a more diverse and richer life experience, despite everything I long for and cannot have it is my natural element.

Each year Diwali would be exactly like it was the previous year in the the town that I grew up in. The usual suspects would have celebrations in their homes, the same set of people would invite and be invited, same or similar local talent would perform at the concerts and so on. If you gone through it once, you knew exactly what to expect. I would be bored to tears having to go through the 'Diwali drill' when it was that time of year and yet it was an intensely personal experience.

In my town, it took a while to earn the local tag - a few years just did not cut it. You had to be a lifer. But when you crossed a certain threshold of time and did become local, it was home forever. I have fel…

Desi Fashion

This blog is an interesting read for desi women who are concerned about not committing fashion crimes and also for those who can't help commenting on such crimes when they see them committed. For easy reference, the blogger has identified the frequently occurring flubs of the desi sisterhood right on page one. When she does unleash her inner-bitch she does not hold back, words are not minced and I would say so much the better for the reader looking to glean some desi fashion wisdom minus the sugar-coating. Tell it like it is, sister.

While style and fashion advice is dime a dozen in desi publications targeted towards women, I have almost never seen anything that actually tells the average desi sister what dress and make-up faux pas she must avoid under all circumstances. Now, there are some columns that routinely trash fashion-challenged Bollywood celebrities but all that bad-mouthing does not have lessons for the rest of us regular folk. It's nice to see someone has filled the…

One-Trick Pony

Having been forced to reinvent myself several times to remain viable in tight job markets, I would recommend this article on branding yourself as a one-trick pony to anyone who is starting out in their career. A former manager once shared his career strategy with me. He would specialize in one area for a few years and then spread out to acquire skills that complemented that specialization. When he had been a generalist for a few years, he would turn to a new area to hone in on. 
The plan had played out well for him and is one that I have used with some modification to adapt to a rapidly evolving job market. I started out as a one-trick pony too and I am glad that I did - that is the skill I think of as my rainy day fund. If all else fails, I could always go back to the basics - and it took being a one-trick pony for quite a while to even have learned those "basics" well enough to be able to fall back on. Yet, even the most exceptional one-trick pony finds it hard to survive i…

Sum Of Parts

Ten Thousand Cents is a fine example of the productivity of crowd sourced projects that does not require participants to be aware of what everyone else is doing or what the overall objective of the project is. Using a custom drawing tool, thousands of individuals working in isolation from one another painted a tiny part of the bill without knowledge of the overall task.

While that premise makes for interesting artwork, you wonder why the same principles when transferred to a real workplace makes for dysfunctional, chaotic organization. All too frequently, ten different teams end up working on the same problem approaching it like so many blind men might an elephant.

There is no communication inside or across team. Each one solves for what it takes the elephant to mean. They work in isolation and without knowledge of the overall task. In the end, an assortment of unrelated stuff gets created instead of a whole elephant - or in this case a reasonable replica of a hundred dollar bill.

Social Media Overload

This critique of the social web gave me plenty to ponder over but if one was looking for a succinct description of why social media is an insufficient remedy for all that ails society, Trebor Scholz has it exactly right:

Social platforms become a partial remedy, a fix for these societal ills. It would not be hard to find cases of social isolation but overall the obese teenager or the alienated adult is not a product of the Social Web but of the described problems of society at large.

The other noteworthy point he makes is the need for successful social media to be a popular watering hole for those who participate - which is why the friends, contacts, followers and the like. Scholz says :

User’s friends are concentrated in only a few places, which is a key motivating factor for people to congregate there. Content, therefore, is also concentrated, which makes these sites more attractive. This captivity is not accidental but is rather central to startup business strategies.

While the sites m…

Crowds

As someone who has always been afraid of crowds and seen plenty of them, I found this WSJ article with quotes from Elias Canetti's book Crowds and Power fascinating. The author Fouad Ajami sees to be suggesting that America is headed the way of Third World countries, when he says ;
Hitherto, crowds have not been a prominent feature of American politics. We associate them with the temper of Third World societies. We think of places like Argentina and Egypt and Iran, of multitudes brought together by their zeal for a Peron or a Nasser or a Khomeini. In these kinds of societies, the crowd comes forth to affirm its faith in a redeemer: a man who would set the world right.
The crowds I have seen in India have not always come together to "affirm its faith in a redeemer" though the sight of many thousand devotees milling around the sanctum sanctora of temples braving huge odds and many hardships to catch a glimpse of their deity is one I am familiar with. Political rallies on the…

Halloween Candy

My neighborhood is rife with the signs of Halloween retail excess - plastic cobwebs, ghosts, ghouls and jack-o-lanterns. J was not able to decide who she wanted to be or "represent" until the end and did not end up going trick or treating. After a very long week at work, I could not be more relieved - for once J's inability to pick out the clothes she wants to wear on time worked entirely to my advantage. Every time a holiday comes along, I think about how commercialization has killed the intrinsic meaning and joy associated with them. Halloween is becoming more and more "plasticky" with every passing year or so it seems to me.

Close to J's bedtime, on my way back from throwing out the trash, that I ran into a neighbor who was walking her dog. She stopped me and said "I have been waiting for kids to come trick or treating all evening but no one came to my house. I don't have children of my own. Please take some candy for yours" She handed me a…